“Wisdom is like a Baobab tree; no one individual can embrace it” (African Tongo proverb).
Before traveling to Baobab Alley in Madagascar with my Natural Exposures photography group I couldn’t have fully appreciated how massive and majestic these incredible trees are! We were in the popular tourist area at sunset the first evening, but the following night we set off to find a more secluded area to photograph these astonishing trees, which give life and shape to the landscape of Madagascar. As with almost everything I do, I wonder about things; wondering pushes me to learn and the additional knowledge gives me a much deeper appreciation of what I will or have seen. Many times the things I learn are upsetting and depressing to me. For example, when researching to write this post I learned how Baobab Alley was created: how these spectacular trees left lining this road were actually the only trees spared when the land was cleared for agriculture. How tragically sad that is.
The baobab is a prehistoric tree species which predates both mankind and the splitting of the continents over 200 million years ago. The massive baobab tree can live up to 5000 years, grow to 100 feet tall, and have a trunk diameter of up to 160 feet, capable of storing tens of thousands of gallons of water. Native to the African savannah where the climate is extremely dry and arid, the baobab tree is a symbol of life and positivity in a landscape where little else can thrive. Over time, the baobab has adapted to its environment: it is a succulent; during the rainy season it absorbs and stores water in its vast trunk, enabling it to produce a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season when all around is parched and dead. This is how the baobab tree became known as “The Tree of Life”.
The baobab tree is the national tree of Madagascar and home to seven of the world’s nine species of baobabs; six species which can be found nowhere else but this island. Despite the size and belief the tree is sacred, at least three of the baobab species are on the critically endangered list and could face extinction over the next 70 years, mainly as a result of human development and climate change.
Many baobab trees currently reside in Protected Area Networks (PANs), which have been established to protect Madagascar’s biodiversity, but the areas outside the PANs have been almost completely converted to agriculture or cattle grazing areas through slash and burn practices, leaving no room for the trees to expand their existence. Adding to this problem is many large bird species which ate the fruit of the baobab tree and further distributed their seeds to other areas have now gone extinct, which has led to a zero-colonization theory, meaning the species now has little way of spreading to new habitats on it’s own. The impressive landscape of Baobab Alley (above), brings travelers from around the world making it one of the most visited locations of the region. This alley is a prominent grouping of baobab trees which line the dirt road between Morondava and Belon’i Tsirbihina of western Madagascar. Because the baobab trees are so threatened, this site has been a center of local conservation efforts and was granted temporary protected status in July 2007 by the Ministry of Environment, Water, and Forests. Although still temporary, this is the first step in making this area Madagascar’s first natural monument.
However, despite the popularity of Baobab Alley as a tourist destination, it is not a national park, has no visitor center or gate fees, and local residents receive little income from this tourist area. One of the nine species, the A. perrieri species, has only 99 observed trees remaining. It is estimated that by the year 2080, its range will be reduced to 30% of what it currently is, further threatening its survival. Another species, A. suarezensis, although has a larger population of 15,000 trees, has a much smaller distribution area of only 1,200 square kilometers. By 2050, this area is estimated to be reduced to only 17 square kilometers, practically guaranteeing the eventual extinction of this species.
Sadly, much of Madagascar’s endemic species, such as many plants and animals, are facing the real threat of extinction in the very near future as a result of land deforestation and climate change. Current researchers warn that the existing PAN system established for Madagascar will need to be reconfigured as “it is not likely to be effective for biodiversity conservation in the future” as the PAN systems will not always contain the ecological features necessary for the survival of the species that live inside them today. Researchers strongly advocate that only through the integration of economic, social, and ecological studies involving local communities and stakeholders will there be any hope in the restoration of Madagascar’s long-term ecosystem. One bright spot; Conservation International, in partnership with Fanamby, a Madagascar non-governmental organization (NGO), has launched an ecotourism project aimed at conservation of the area and economic improvement for the local community.
What You Can Do?
1. Raise awareness through education. By reading blogs such as this, having discussions, and increasing consciousness through further enlightenment, you can make a direct impact on this crisis.
2. Support tourism. A tourist in Madagascar can generate an income for those communities living on as little as $2.00 per day. Because of the poor economy of the area, many communities exploit the land as a means for survival.
3. Encourage conservation through mindful harvesting of baobab fruit which has many medicinal qualities such as anti-oxidant, anti-microbial, anti-malarial, anti-diarrheal, anti-asthma, and anti-viral, to name a few. The fruit is also very high in electrolytes, vitamins, and minerals.
4. Fund specific organizations such as www.madagaikara-voakajy.org, a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), that serves to preserve and conserve the trees and animal species of Madagascar.
Other groups worthy of looking into and making a difference through your support:
I hope my readers have enjoyed this post. I also hope I have been able to raise awareness on certain topics from behind my lens and through my blog posts; I believe awareness is the only thing that might save us from destroying ourselves.